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Made in India

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By As Priyanka Chopra releases her first single, she hopes to join a small group of people from India whose music has left a mark in the West. Sonia Sarkar goes down memory lane
  • Published 16.09.12

Freddie Mercury. Asha Puthli. Engelbert Humperdinck. Peter Sarstedt. Biddu. Priyanka Chopra.

Priyanka Chopra?

That’s right. The Hindi film actress is all ready to join the pantheon of Indian-origin singers who became household names in the West. And though Chopra’s song — released on Thursday — is still to be tested, she hopes that In My City, depicting her journey from a small town to tinsel town, will help her realise an old dream.

“It has been a long cherished dream which is finally coming true,” Chopra recently said about her music debut.

If Chopra’s song catches on, she will join a handful of people from India who have made it big in the world of popular Western music. Freddie Mercury — the lead vocalist of Queen — was by far the most famous of India’s musical exports, though he seldom talked publicly about his childhood in Mumbai. The list comprises several others, many of them Anglo-Indians.

“They were at the right place at the right time, that is, the 1960s, when there was a major cultural and social revolution happening,” says drummer Nondon Bagchi of the Calcutta-based rock band, Hip Pocket.

People of a certain generation may remember the song Where do you go to my lovely. Sung by Peter Sarstedt, it was often said that the 1969 hit was about Sophia Loren. What’s not widely known is that Sarstedt was born in India in 1941. He went to Victoria Boys’ School in Kurseong in West Bengal before his family moved to England in 1954. Where do you go to my lovely topped UK’s chartbusters and won him the Ivor Novello Award for British songwriters and singers.

“He was a one-song wonder. His fame didn’t sustain for long,” says Bagchi.

Another singer with Indian blood is Humperdinck. Born to an Anglo-Indian mother and British father in erstwhile Madras in 1936, Arnold Dorsey — as he was known then — seldom talked about his days in India. Years later, when he toured India in 2005, he said, “...I’m so happy to be singing here at last because I absolutely love India.”

But the vocalist who still rocks 21 years after his death — he was even part of the London Olympic celebrations — is Mercury. Farrokh Bulsara was born in a Parsi family in Zanzibar and then moved to Mumbai in 1954. He went to St Peter’s School in Panchgani near Mumbai.

The most successful among all singers with an India link, Mercury was known for his electrifying stage performances, raspy voice and raw sex appeal. “He had the right attitude and that worked for him,” says rock band Parikrama’s manager Subir Malik.

But radio jockey Sunil Varma believes they could become stars in the West because they denied their Indian blood. “I doubt that Mercury or Humperdinck could have become this famous if they had disclosed their Indian lineage because the West had always looked down upon talent from the Third World,” he says. Adds urban folk singer Susmit Bose, who went to London in 1978 to try his luck in music but came back disappointed, “Mercury and Humperdinck could make it big because they were the children of the West as they grew up there. They understood the taste of Western listeners and therefore were widely accepted.”

The one singer who revelled in her Indian roots is the jazz sensation of the 1970s, Asha Puthli. Born and raised in Mumbai, Puthli went to New York on a dance scholarship in the 1970s but later focused on vocals. “I arrived in the US at a time when Rock ’’ Roll was King. Jazz wasn’t given much importance,” Puthli says on the phone from the US. “I crossed three hurdles — socio-cultural, financial and geopolitical — to make a mark in the US.”

Varma adds that Puthli once told him one of the record labels in the West wanted her to change her name. “But she refused, and insisted on keeping her identity,” he recalls.

For artistes such as Humperdinck, Sarstedt and Tony Brent — a pop singer who grew up in Mumbai and moved to England when he was 20 — the vibrant musical heritage of the Anglo-Indian community helped hone their musical skills.

“Dance and music have always been an integral part of the lives of Anglo Indians,” says singer-lyricist-filmmaker Anjan Dutt. “Their culture helped these artistes understand what the West wanted. They grew up listening to Western music and it was easier for them to cater to Western audiences.”

Biddu — who wrote Kung Fu Fighting — also had ample exposure to Western music. Born in Bangalore, Biddu Appaiah always wanted to be a singer and left for England in 1967. “I thought in two weeks I’m going to crack this city,” Biddu told 7 Days in a 2010 interview. “I thought I was going to be at the top of the cherry tree! Then I realised that there were thousands of musicians in London, all trying to make it, and all pretty good.”

Malik believes that these artistes could gauge the Western market because they’d moved to the West. “They couldn’t have made it big without having made this move. One has to be there to understand the market. They had appointed local managers to look after their business, which clearly reflect their professionalism,” he says.

Chopra is on a similar track. She’s appointed the artiste management company Atom Factory (which also manages pop diva Lady Gaga) to take care of her musical career. Chopra’s single also features (of the band Black Eyed Peas) and is part of her maiden English album, slated to be out in December.

“Her vocal range and the ‘husk’ in her voice are her USP. But she doesn’t want to become a pop singer. This album has a lot of Indian classical elements in it,” says her father Ashok Chopra.

Some believe that perceptions about Indian artistes may be changing. “The US market is much more open to artistes coming from different parts of the world,” says Puthli.

All those with musical dreams, fasten your seatbelts.